Going Off-Piste In The 2021 Ford Bronco, Jeep Finally Has A Challenger

Going Off-Piste In The 2021 Ford Bronco, Jeep Finally Has A Challenger

Almost 25 years to the day after production of the last generation Ford Bronco ended, the new Bronco finally began rolling off the assembly line at the Wayne, Michigan assembly plant and off to dealers and customers. We’ve now had a chance to drive the big Bronco both on the road and the environment it was really created for, along narrow trails, over rocks and through mud. Read on to find out if the 2021 Ford Bronco is actually a worthy challenger for the long-time class of its own, the Jeep Wrangler. 

In preparing to take on the Wrangler, Ford engineers and designers spent a lot of time trying to understand just what it is about the Jeep that makes it so appealing to its hard-core fans. The big conclusion they came to is that there is no single Wrangler for everyone. The Jeep is one of the most customizable vehicles you can buy and many owners make it their own with a range of accessories and also by leveraging its modularity. Just like a Wrangler a Bronco can be had with two or four doors, hard or soft tops, lots of wheels and tires and major portions of the body that can be removed or replaced. 

Over a couple of half days near Austin, Texas, we had the opportunity to sample both body styles, from fully enclosed to fully open with no doors or roof. There are lots of similarities but also some crucial differences between the two vehicles. While Wrangler has been significantly modernized over the decades of its existence, in many respects it is still quite old school. You shift between two wheel drive, four-high and four-low with a mechanical lever that is surprisingly recalcitrant. There is the mandatory backup camera and a touch screen that supports Apple Carplay and Android Auto, but most of what makes it such a beast off-road remains more mechanical in nature than the Ford. 

Ford has leveraged the latest electronics, sensors and actuators that can be found on its other products to make the Bronco easier to use in the rough than a Jeep, although customers don’t have to get all of the software driven bits. For example, When off-roading in more challenging environments, such as climbing a rock face with the nose pointed 25 degrees up to toward the sky you can’t really see anything of what is in front of the vehicle. In most off-roaders you would rely on friend to spot you and guide you as you carefully maneuver. Hitting a sharp rock and puncturing a tire in the wilds of Moab or the Texas hill country would put a real damper on your fun. 

In the lower trim levels of the Bronco you can still do things the old-fashioned way if you prefer. But you can also get an option package that adds several cameras around the vehicle and a 12-inch touchscreen that will provide you with a selection of views at speeds up to 20 mph. You can see what’s directly in front of you, a surround view or even a split view that shows where both front wheels are going so you can guide yourself around those rubber piercing rocks. All very handy and much appreciated on the tougher trails. 

Unlike that balky transfer case shifter in the Jeep, Ford has a rotary dial on the center console with rubberized buttons on the top to quickly select between two, four-high or four-low and trail control. A twist of the dial lets you select between five or seven drive modes such as normal, sand, mud and ruts or rock crawl. Each of the modes sets items like the stability control thresholds appropriately and engages items like the locking differentials as needed. Shifting modes on the fly is extremely handy and can be a big help to get out of situations you might not have realized you were getting yourself into. 

In the center of the dashboard are a row of “hero” switches to also allow you engage/disengage certain features independently. Among these are locking the front and rear differentials (since this is a true four-wheel-drive vehicle, there is no center differential) disengaging the front sway bar or activating trail turn assist. 

Trail turn assist is another particularly cool feature enabled by the presence of stability control. Since stability control systems can independently apply brakes to any of the wheels as part of their main functionality, this can be utilized off-road as well. On a trail with a particularly tight turn, activating the turn assist will lock the inside rear wheel when the steering wheel is cranked all the way to its limit in either direction and the accelerator is pressed. The Bronco will then turn around that inside back wheel, making surprisingly tight turns. 

The Jeep also has a sway bar disconnect, but since it still has a live front axle, it has more limited articulation of the wheels over large bumps. The Bronco sway bar disconnect can be pressed at any time and the independently suspended front wheels will be able to move further in an effort to find grip. 

During the first wave of media drives that I participated in, the weather was dry and the water levels in some creeks we went through were relatively low. Subsequent days saw heavy rainfall and deeper water. The Bronco can ford through over 33-inches of water, although you won’t want to do that with the doors off. 

Speaking of doors off, it’s a fairly easy process on the Bronco, consisting of just two bolts for each door plus an electrical connector. The four-door comes with customized bags that you can slide over each door, then remove the two bolts and simply lift the door off the hinges and store it in the back cargo area. The doors on the four-door weigh about 40 pounds each so they are manageable, but not exactly lightweight. Since the doors are removable, the window and mirror switches are located on the center console. The mirror control like the hero switches and mode dial are sealed in a rubber covering to protect them from the elements. 

The suspension of the Bronco is very well sorted out and even on the roughest trails, there was surprisingly little head toss or bouncing around. We had the opportunity to go for a hot lap around a dirt trail course with a professional driver at much higher speeds than we used on the other trails and  the Bronco remained very composed. 

The Bronco is available with a choice of 2.3-liter four-cylinder or 2.7-liter V6 ecoboost engines, both of which make plenty of power and torque for off-road adventures. While most people will choose the 10-speed automatic transmission (the only option with the V6), a seven-speed manual transmission is available with the four. This is a really a six-speed Getrag with an extra ultra-low crawler gear. Since this extra gear is not meant for normal driving, you have to go through the same lockout as reverse to engage it with reverse being left and up and the crawler being left and down. 

While Broncos and Wranglers are both designed and built for rock crawling and creeping through trails, the reality is that both will spend most of their existence on pavement. Here, the Bronco really has an advantage over the Wrangler, despite the impressive advances that Jeep engineers have made in the past two decades. I drove from Austin to the Bronco Off-Rodeo facility in a two-door, hardtop First Edition Bronco. 

The drive route consisted of a mix of urban streets, twisting roads in the hill country and some highway miles. Given the block shape of the Bronco, I expected significantly more wind noise than I actually got and more tire noise from the all-terrain rubber. In fact, both were surprisingly muted with little sense of the air flow and only a mild hum from the tires. Like the off-road courses the ride quality was also surprisingly comfortable and composed. 

While a tall SUV on tall tires with big sidewalls will inevitably experience some body roll, the two-door felt surprisingly capable and sporty through the curves. The compliance in those big tires meant that steering feel wasn’t much to write home about and there was some body roll. Along with the independent front suspension, there is a live rear axle and mid-corner bumps could get it to step out just a bit, but no so much that it ever feels unmanageable or scary. 

I didn’t drive the four-door or soft-top on the street, but my friend Nicole Wakelin said the soft-top she drove was much louder so you may want to take a test drive before making your selection.

I had the opportunity for a bit of comparison against a Wrangler and found the Jeep to be much bouncier on pavement and it head my head tossing back and forth more over trail bumps. To get the most capable off-road setup you also have to opt for the Rubicon model that starts at $41,000 delivered for the two-door soft-top. Ford offers the Sasquatch off-road package on all trims including the base. That combination is available for just over $38,000. The Jeep and Ford are similar in overall exterior dimensions, but most of the Bronco’s body extends out to the perimeter while the main part of the Jeep cabin is narrower with the fenders extending out. The result is that the Jeep feels narrower and more cramped inside than the Bronco. 

The only real complaint I had about the Bronco was rather mediocre fuel economy on the road. Four-cylinder models are rated at up 21 mpg combined but adding those big off-road tires brings the rating down to 17 mpg combined while I averaged about 16 mpg. The Wrangler isn’t much better with gas engines, but Jeep does offer diesel and now plug-in hybrid variants that do much better. Ford has promised hybrid versions of all SUVs but isn’t ready to talk about that just yet. Those may arrive in 2022 after Ford absorbs some of the pent-up demand. 

Broncos start at just over $30,000 delivered and run up to near $60,000 for a loaded Wildtrack model. For the first time in a long time, there is a real alternative to the Jeep Wrangler and its well worth a look.


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